Desert Isle Keeper
Last Call at the Telegraph Club
The winner of multiple awards, Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club is the beautifully written narration of a young Chinese-American teen’s queer coming-of-age in 1954 California. The story is set in a richly depicted Chinese-American San Francisco of the 1930s through 1950s, including flashbacks to LIly’s parents and her aunt, whose career working as a calculator for rocketry inspires Lily to dream of a future in STEM herself. The book does have a romance with an HFN, but the core of the story is Lily Hu’s growing self-knowledge of her sexuality, not her falling in love specifically with Kath Miller.
Lily exists in a void of information about sexuality. She has to recognize her uncomfortable nervous feeling as arousal before she can start to unpack the fact that she is experiencing it looking at women, and that other women who feel that way exist, too. All she has to guide her is pulp novels she doesn’t dare purchase and reactions she doesn’t understand to photographs of Katharine Hepburn, women pilots, and a ‘male impersonator’ named Tommy Andrews. It’s this photograph that, when she drops it near schoolmate Kath Miller, provides the thread that draws the two together. Kath, it turns out, has been to the Telegraph Club, where Tommy performs, and can get Lily the fake ID she needs to go, too.
Soon, Lily and Kath are sneaking out to visit the club, making friends with fellow regulars and even Tommy herself. But becoming aware doesn’t solve all of Lily’s problems. Can she confess to Kath what she is, and that she hopes Kath is the same way? What would they even do if Kath said yes? Lily’s father’s citizenship papers have been confiscated for refusing to declare a patient a communist; how can she take these risks when any sign of ‘abnormality’ might not just ruin her and her family’s reputations in Chinatown, but lead to deportation?
Lily Hu is a reminder that just because an author writes a YA heroine, they don’t have to write That YA Heroine. The best compliment I can give Lily is that she’s hard to describe because she isn’t a one-dimensional person easily matched to a list of adjectives. Her confusion, the embarrassment she feels when she realizes her feelings are sexual, her dutifulness as a daughter and friend, and reconciling it with her need to be truthful – it’s all achingly authentic. Her difficult relationship with her best friend Shirley Lum feels so realistic because Shirley is also so realistic. Shirley reacts poorly when Lily’s new interests, both queer and future/college related, draw focus away from herself, but their history and the interconnectedness of the Chinatown community make separations challenging. (Shirley’s vividness has the unfortunate side effect of making Kath less compelling).
Speaking of the Chinatown community, the setting is lovingly and meticulously developed. The Oriental Pearl serves chop suey to tourists and Lily can’t fold the napkin swans; Fong Fong serves the best ginger ice cream. Long-settled Cantonese- and English-speaking Chinese Americans aren’t sure how to assimilate newcomers from the North who, like Lily’s Shanghai-born father, speak Mandarin and have been stranded by the Communist takeover of China in 1949.
This book is extremely well-written, but at times it felt a bit… ‘good for me’, like a salad you eat for its nutritional value, not because you’re enjoying it. While I stand in awe of the meticulous research, lovely prose, and truthful characterization and representation that make up this book, I didn’t actually feel any joy reading it until I reached the epilogue. There’s the stress of waiting for the inevitable implosion of Lily’s life (the book won awards; clearly it’s not going to be smooth sailing!). Lily is discomfited by or ashamed of her sexual feelings far more than she is liberated by them, and if you, like me, suffer from secondhand embarrassment, many passages are downright painful to read. Lastly, there are sections which feel as though they’ve been written specifically to shoe-horn in the author’s research. I don’t think I needed to see Aunt Judy taking Lily to the planetarium when she was younger, or a long date between Lily’s parents.
Even Madame Chiang’s state visit seems to take too much page time when you realize what’s omitted: there is an enormous time skip before the epilogue and, while it’s hard to write this without spoilers, basically, Kath and Lily are separated, and then suddenly you turn the page and see ONE YEAR LATER. I understand that the story was already over 400 pages but… this is a hell of a time skip at a critical moment. Cut some flashbacks, or some of the long-winded passages in which Lily wanders between San Francisco landmarks. Then there would have been word count to give us a few of the letters Kath and Lily write over that year, and to give us closure on Lily and her family, and Lily and Shirley.
Upon finishing this book, my reaction was ‘This would be a fantastic 10th grade English book, assuming you’re somewhere that hasn’t banned it yet.’ What I mean by that is it’s well crafted, beautifully written, accurately researched, representative of people and voices whose stories aren’t often told, and… well, it’s also ‘good for you’. But even my dopamine-craving reader brain balks at dessert stories now and then and demands a salad for a change. The next time that happens to you, try Last Night at the Telegraph Club.
I'm a history geek and educator, and I've lived in five different countries in North America, Asia, and Europe. In addition to the usual subgenres, I'm partial to YA, Sci-fi/Fantasy, and graphic novels. I love to cook.
|Review Date:||May 4, 2023|
|Book Type:||Historical Fiction | Young Adult|
|Review Tags:||1950s | AoC | California | f/f romance | Modern Historical | PoC | San Francisco | STEM heroine|
This sounds delightful!